In A Quilt for David, Los Angeles poet Steven Reigns opens up a moving and unsettling investigation into the life of David Johnson Acer, a gay Florida dentist accused in the 1980s by eight of his patients of having infected them with HIV. One accuser was allegedly a virgin; another, a grandmother. The media had a field day. From his hospital bed where he lay dying, David wrote a letter protesting his innocence. His accusers successfully sued him for damages, and even fought (unsuccessfully) to have a mandate where health practitioners would be forced to disclose their HIV status—even though there were no other cases of dental transmissions of HIV. History remembers David as a monster.
Having worked for over a decade providing HIV testing and counseling, Reigns is well-armed with the facts of the disease, which he shares in the book’s preface. HIV is transmitted through five fluids: pre-cum, cum, vaginal fluid, blood, and breast milk. It needs a way into the body (such as a cut or a sore) and is weak outside it, where it dies quickly. Exposure doesn’t always mean transmission.
Beyond the science, Reigns, a practicing psychotherapist, understands people. He writes, “There are lots of reasons to hold onto a secret; sometimes, in keeping that secret, someone gets blamed for something they didn’t do, and a history gets written.”
A Quilt for David doesn’t so much attempt to write a different history as question what has been set down as fact—and speculate as to the reasons why. Reigns doesn’t take poetic license with the material. Instead, in taut prose, with a poet’s eye for details, he relays the facts of the events that transpired and lets us make sense of them. Everyone, it seems, had something to hide.
In his late thirties, David lives alone with his cocker spaniel, Ginger (named for the color of her coat), and drives a green Honda Accord. Outside of work, he plays tennis, drives a boat, pilots a plane. He lives a quiet, fastidious, closeted life. Fewer than three years pass from diagnosis to death. The physical effects are immediate and miserable: David loses both hair and weight. Discovering Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions in his mouth, he cauterizes them himself, at home—a detail that underscores the agony he bears in private. As Reigns points out, in 1989 AIDS was “the new leprosy.” Fiercely loyal, David’s staff circles the wagons: “Silence more loving than defense.”
He is already in the hospital when his first accuser steps forward, former patient Kimberly Ann Bergalis. Under oath, she declares herself a virgin; she said she “wasn’t sure” if a man’s penis had penetrated her vagina. If not from David, how else could she have contracted HIV? In high school, there were rumors of her promiscuity and her fondness for Latin men: “not the kind of men Kimberly was encouraged to date,” Reigns points out. The CDC investigator is aware that her hymen is broken. Kimberly also has venereal warts. Of the investigator, Reigns wonders, “Did he sacrifice one reputation for the purity of another?”
Barbara Webb is the next notable woman to come forward. The media pounce on the fact that she’s a grandmother. It’s overlooked that she’d had bowel surgery, hepatitis, and herpes years before seeing David for an extraction. Reigns writes, “As gay men died alone in hospices, hospitals, and homes across the country, people wanted to save these two women.”
Reigns doesn’t take poetic license with the material. Instead, in taut prose, with a poet’s eye for details, he relays the facts of the events that transpired and lets us make sense of them. Everyone, it seems, had something to hide.
The injustice at the heart of A Quilt for David is hard to bear. It’s not so much a question of being falsely accused as wrongly accused. The conclusion of David’s guilt was foregone before any evidence was presented simply because he was gay. The popular sentiment at that time was that gay people were disgusting and AIDS was what they deserved. Given that prevailing mentality, how could these straight women be anything but innocent victims? Yet the power of A Quilt for David is that it’s not so cut and dried. We are all innocent, Reigns seems to say, and we are all guilty. By discovering and focusing on commonalities, the poems find understanding for everyone.
The spot where David’s office once stood briefly became a nightclub. Reigns imagines a younger generation, knowing nothing of this past, focused only on their pleasure, and their imagined future, just as Kimberly, Barbara, and all the other victims must have, David included:
All of you as innocent
as the revelers at Club Envy.
No one could have possibly known
when they danced in their youth
what was to come, how what they felt
couldn’t be bottled or kept or captured.
That a virus would harm them all.
Kimberly has four panels on the AIDS Memorial Quilt; David, none. Reigns’ incredibly powerful tribute is a testimony not only to a single life, but to the power of compassion, empathy, and advocacy. I wouldn’t be surprised if this powerful material finds life beyond the page. With its vivid characters, dramatic conflict, and lyrical writing, it seems ripe for operatic adaptation. Here’s hoping someone picks up the thread.